Archiving History since 1985: The National Security Archive


The_National_Security_ArchiveInformation doesn’t belong to the government, it belongs to all of us.  (Blanton in Carlson)



Located in the Gelman Library at the George Washington University, USA, the National Security Archive (NS-Archive) is a non-governmental research centre, library and repository for government records and declassified documents. It was founded in 1985 by academics, journalists and historians as an independent non-profit organisation to monitor and challenge the increase of secrecy by the US government, despite the laws on Freedom of Information (Theroux 1; Carlson; The National Security Archive, Website “About”). Its original aim was to increase public access to ‘the historical record’ by ‘guaranteeing the public’s right to know’, and they set out to acquire and publish federal and government agency documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and Mandatory Declassification Review (Unredacted, “About”). Since its existence, it has been funded through donations, grants from foundations such as the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and through the sale of publications, and presently costs $3 million a year to run (NS-Archive “About”; Theroux 4-5; 8). Their mission today is

to enrich research and public debate about issues of national security policy by gathering, indexing, publishing, and making available to the public its unique collections of documentary materials on U.S. foreign policy issues (NS-Archive Editorial Policy)


At the time of their foundation, they had an interest to decipher the truth about American involvement with the Contra guerrillas in Central America (Carlson). Their work in obtaining documents through the FOIA, led to the breaking of the Iran-Contra affair, and was assembled as a microfiche collection in 1989, called The Iran Contra-Affair: The Making of a Scandal, 1983-1988 (NS-Archive Website; Theroux 5).[1] According to Blanton, a current director, the breaking of the Iran-Contra Affair put them on the map (qtd. in Theroux 5). Blanton joined the Archive team in 1986, and adds that the “Archive’s core methodology arose from those Iran-Contra days, Blanton says: putting documents side by side to compare what’s covered up (redacted) and what’s revealed” (qtd. in Theroux 5). Indeed, in 2014, Blanton believed that the legacy of Iran-Contra, put the US on the road to Iraq in 2003 (“Iran Contra at 25” YouTube).[2]



tom blanton and white house email

Tom Blanton, one of the directors of the National Security Archive holding the published copy of the White House e-mail in November, 1995. Image Source: NS-Archive

From there, the NS-Archive set precedents in pursuing appeals and lawsuits to obtain government documents, and bring them to public awareness. For example, when US President Ronald Reagan was leaving office in 1989, the Reagan administrations planned to erase White House emails, but were stopped because of a lawsuit filed against Reagan et al., by Scott Armstrong, one of the Archive directors (Blanton “White House Email”; Carlson; Theroux 6).[3] For the next six years the NS-Archive fought in the US courts for access to the emails, and finally won their case, and published the information in a book titled White House email in November, 1995 (Blanton “White House Email”; Theroux 6).


The NS-Archive continued to publish documents in Readers and also compiled documents into different collections on microfiche which they made available to educational institutions. However, from the mid-nineties they started to focus on compilations in the form of Electronic Briefing Books which could be hosted on the World Wide Web (Library of Congress; NS-Archive Website). It was then that the NS-Archive began to realise its potential capacity to disseminate declassified documents in the public domain on a global scale. So, in terms of a Digital Humanities project, it was one of the fore-runners in the field and posted its first EBB on the internet in 1996, titled The United States, China, and the Bomb (NS-Archive “Electronic Briefing Books”). Electronic Books formed the basis of Thematic Resource Collections.

By the year 2000, the NS-Archive was acclaimed to be the leading US non-profit organisation in the use of the FOIA (Library of Congress), and still is today! (Theroux 1). As the NS-Archive developed over time; it acquired more administrative, legal and technical staff, and also academic/research specialists to filter the incoming material, in a bid to make on-line document collections which included overviews, chronologies and photographs (Carlson). This was a huge benefit for independent researchers who would have otherwise spent large amounts of time, energy and money to obtain and filter through the same information. In 2006, a subsidiary web-site/database was set up called the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) in conjunction with ProQuest, and offers a subscription based resource which allows for access to the documents with ‘item and page-level searching across more than 20 combinable fields’ (Digital National Security Archive-Website).

By 2014, the site was estimating 2 million visitors a year, and the following chart shows their daily data download since 2002.

Digital History - The National Security Archive, by Sharon Healy (14.10.2014)2

The rigour of the NS-Archive to obtain documents from the US federal government and institutions and their authoritative approach to the historical record, has often resulted in altering scholarly perceptions as well as public assumptions surrounding the interpretations of historical-political decisions and events. For example, through extensive FOI’s and even lawsuits, they uncovered documents which challenged the historiography of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and also the extent of the CIA’s involvement in South and North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, from 1954 (Theroux 3; Chang and Kornbluh).[4] Another such example was the release of a document which showed ‘the U.S.’s and the international community’s failure to intervene in Rwanda when the genocide was already occurring’ (in Democracy Now). Such documents informed journalist Samantha Power in her acclaimed article “Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen” in the September 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It also led to a chapter in her 2002 book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide which won the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction in 2003 (Power, Chp. 10).

The Archive also received donations of documents from private sources, and one notable donation in 2004 was from Anatoly Chernyaev, the former ‘chief foreign policy aide to Gorbachev’ (Savranskaya and Melyakova). He donated his original diaries of 1972-1991 to the NS-Archive to ensure they would remain permanently available for public access (Savranskaya). Cherynaev’s diaries certainly raised new avenues of inquiry on the ending of the Cold War and dismantled many one-sided triumphalist debates. For example, consideration was given to Reagan and his policies on rearmament, an increased defence budget and the initiation of the ‘Star Wars’ program in 1983, while others argued that the policy of containment had finally broken the Soviets (Judt, 542; Stokes, 13). Cherynaev’s diary became invaluable as a primary source for scholars to explore interpretations of events from the ‘other side’. Savranskaya suggests that ‘the diary gives insights into the thought processes of one of most influential new thinkers in Moscow’ (i.e. Mikhail Gorbachev).[5] Indeed, Archie Brown used it extensively and was one of the first Western scholars to produce a well-researched and documented argument in Seven Years that changed the World, published in 2007, for the role played by Michael Gorbachev in the ending of the Cold War (Oxford University Press, Voice of America).

Since 1985, the NS-Archive has provided a significant resource for diplomatic, political and foreign policy historians, researchers in international relations, current affairs, communications and political science, as well as investigative journalists. However, it is not merely a resource for researchers and academic scholarship; it is a resource for the public to access information, become more informed, and so, come up with their own conclusions.

A brief overview of their methodology and milestones is available here:



[1] It contained ‘over 20,000 pages of rarely-seen documentation from the government as well as the private sector’ (NS-Archive Website).


[3] Armstrong had been a Watergate reporter with the Washington Post (Theroux 4)

[4] On the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chang and Kornbluh acclaim that uncovered documents “allowed scholars to highlight the inevitable distortions, limitations, and inaccuracies in the narratives of former Kennedy administration officials”.

[5] According to David Hoffman the diary ‘“is one of the great internal records of the Gorbachev years, a trove of irreplaceable observations about a turning point in history. There is nothing else quite like it, allowing the reader to sit at Gorbachev’s elbow at the time of perestroika and glasnost, experiencing the breakthroughs and setbacks. It is a major contribution to our understanding of this momentous period”’ (Melyakova).




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